Professionals reclaim their territory

I’m from the Sulka tribe. The Tolai clan ate my people but it doesn’t matter because the Bianing Tribe came and ate the Tolai clan.

This was heard while traveling to a jungle location in Papua New Guinea. I was in the region working on a project about the people of this remote area and William, my local guide, was telling me about his life as a mask carver.

Before leaving for the assignment my agent had requested images shot with a mobile phone. A mobile phone! Why? What’s wrong with the high-end professional cameras that I’ve been using for the last number of years? There’s nothing better than the sharp lenses and high quality files that these cameras are capable of producing in all types of lighting situations.

Fashionable, trendy, quirky and saleable were the words bandied about when I asked, “But why use a mobile phone camera?”

I’m a documentary photographer and terms like fashionable or trendy aren’t part of my lexicon. But always up for a challenge and spurred on by the word saleable, I decided to give it a go.

Nowadays everybody uses a mobile phone camera. My Facebook page is stuffed with images of what people eat for breakfast, closes-ups of their babies and drunks clinging to each other, all snapped by the ever-present mobile phone.

If someone can capture an image of his or her pet dog lifting its leg on the family furniture, surely I can produce a good image of a surviving member of the Sulka tribe I thought.

For nine days I travelled from village to village with my digital cameras slung around my neck, looking for subjects to photograph. As soon as I found an interesting scene I would shove my digital cameras aside and whip out my mobile phone for a shot of the decisive moment.

Fifteen years ago many photographic students rushed out and bought a Holga or a Diana camera, cheap plastic cameras that produced images which were fashionable, trendy, quirky and saleable.  Before long every photographer, aspiring and seasoned alike, thought they needed one in their bag. Fashion photographers waved them around like a secret weapon; war photographers said, “Hey this is different”; art photographers produced a quirky style and editorial photographers used the cameras to give us a new take on political images.

I also shot a series of images with the Holga that were used in a book titled Tour of Duty. These images were shot in a similar manner to the way I was using the mobile phone in Papua New Guinea. The idea was to use a non-threatening looking device that the subjects felt comfortable with rather than a hefty looking digital camera with a large zoom lens.

The quality of the cameras in mobile phones has now moved ahead in leaps and bounds allowing you to produce a reasonable quality file, certainly good enough for reproduction. In fact, Time magazine used a mobile phone picture on their cover showing the effects of Hurricane Sandy. http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffbercovici/2012/11/01/why-time-magazine-used-instagram-to-cover-hurricane-sandy/

Editorial photographers are now shooting in all types of contexts with mobile phones, including street photography, conflict, portraits, paparazzi and lifestyle.  Fashion, art and commercial photographers have also latched onto this new device for capturing images.  In other words the professional image-makers have added another tool to their ever-expanding toolbox.

Inevitably the result of this professional interest is that we are now seeing improved mobile phone images. Even if the moment recorded is a point and shoot one, it is framed with a professional eye. Now we are starting to see some phone images that have a quality and edge to them. Images that are driven by content, composition and lighting, which surely is the basis of all good photography.

With the rise of the mobile phone camera comes the portable Photoshop.

Apps like Instagram, which are used to alter the colour, shape, grain and noise of the image have emerged. What the apps can’t do though is help you create a well-seen image. All they can achieve is to change what you captured on the phone and turn it into a coloured and textured image. To quote the computer experts, “Garbage in garbage out”.

Not every professional is enamored with the Instagram. Photojournalist Kenneth Jareke wrote “….putting a fake border on a picture makes the whole picture fake……” Jareke also believes that you should be shooting with a camera that produces a much higher quality image, film or digital. He writes that in time your files from the Instagram phone app will be of a useless quality. The images will look interesting at the instant of taking but in years to come you will wish they were captured with a better camera. “Instead of having a body of work to look back on, you’ll have a sad little collection of noisy digital files”. – See more at: http://kennethjarecke.typepad.com/mostly_true/2012/10/instagram-the-devil-and-you.html

At the end of my trip to Papua New Guinea I had acquired a vast number of photographs shot on my phone camera.  And a small number of images was even usable. Of course I had to edit out those ones with my thumb across the lens and vast numbers of blurred pictures because, as I discovered, the camera only works in bright light.

After looking at the phone images I had to agree with Jareke to some extent. That is, wow what an interesting picture, but wish I’d shot the image on a “real” camera so I had a better file. In the end the phone camera is just a capturing device and all the usual photographic skills are needed to produce a good image.

Now the professionals have taken to using the phone camera in a serious fashion, I suppose my Facebook page will be covered in even more images of dancing dogs, parrots with paper hats and drunken party goers. At least there’s one thing we can be sure of and that is the pictures will be well composed, unless of course they are taken by one of the happy partygoers.

Man with cigar
Photograph shot on a film camera

Holga Images
Picture taken with a Holga plastic camera